Following on from both the completion of the Akira manga, and his work on the anime adaptation of his own work, Katsuhiro Otomo got to work on his first foray into Live Action films with his adaptation of a story written by Satoshi Kon (yes, acclaimed director of Perfect Blue, Paprika and Tokyo Godfathers, Satoshi Kon). If these two names alone aren’t enough star power to make you seek out this film, let me throw this tidbit of information in as well, Otomo co-wrote the screenplay with Keiko Nobumoto, as in; the very same Keiko Nobumoto who served as the screenwriter for the seminal Cowboy Bebop. So in this production alone, you have the guy who wrote and directed Akira, arguably one of the most important and influential anime and manga in history, the guy who directed some of the most acclaimed anime films of all time, and the woman who wrote one of the greatest anime TV series of all time. And yet somehow this film remains relatively unknown, I only found out about it as I was reading about Otomo’s career, meanwhile it’s only been logged as watched by 169 Letterboxd users, and rated by 208 IMDB users, which while not the most accurate way to track data, it does give an indication to its obscurity.
The story concerns a Yakuza underling Ita, played by future film director Sabu, is tasked with clearing out a derelict block of apartments filled with foreign residents and an evil spirit. The film is presented as a dark comedy, but it actually has some really impressive social commentary and metaphor under the funny surface. The main send-up of the film is racism and societal xenophobia, with the image of Ita trying to force out the foreigners in order to knockdown and rebuild the building, can be seen as metaphor the traditional nationalistic sentiment: “once we get the foreigners out we can make this place great again”, while this is played for laughs with Ita’s attempts to disrupt the foreigners lives often fails and the residents prove to be a benevolent force in Ita’s life. The film then subverts this idea in a dark turn, when it reveals that the supernatural force is rooted in Japan’s history and the atrocities they committed. But it’s this lingering trauma of the past, both the nationalistic sentiments of Ita’s character and the spiritual force that haunts the film and its characters. The nuance of the script is where this excels, despite it being abundantly apparent, this social commentary never feels forced. It comes through the jokes of the film; Ita’s character screaming about how the Japanese are caucasion not Asian, or how Japanese is such a difficult language that even the Japanese don’t understand it. It’s sharp writing like this in these scenes that make the film so funny, and yet punchy with its criticism. Another great example of this mix comes right near the end of the film when Ita’s missing brother, who had been tasked before Ita to clear out the apartment block, turns up in full historic samurai gear trying to violently evict the residents. Meanwhile, Ita’s Yakuza boss is also there trying to clear out the building, the two start to fight while the residents want them to avoid stepping on and breaking the ancient mask that carries the spirit. It seems like a fun fight scene with some laughs in, but it can also be read as a commentary on how both the older Japanese traditions and the new cultural outlook can cause friction that leaves immigrants and foreigners to be harmed from it.
Despite it being his first time working in live-action filmmaking, Otomo and cinematography Noboru Shinoda do a brilliant job of framing the scenes to convey the tight and claustrophobic space of the apartments. But without sacrificing this feeling, there are also lots of interesting and innovative camera angles and framing used too, to create a vibrant tapestry of shots compositions running throughout the film. Similarly the editing is punchy, keeping the pacing of the film tight throughout the film, which in turn really helps with the comedy as well as the horror elements of the film. The standout of the film is by and far, Sabu’s performance as Ita. He really carries the film on his shoulders, he’s hilarious with great comic timing and line delivery. Just look at the scene where he and the residents are playing Mahjong, while all the actors do a great job the frenetic energy that Sabu brings to this, as well as every scene is top-notch. The rest of the ensemble cast are fairly small roles, but they do a great job of supporting the scenes as they play out, and giving Sabu ample room to drive the scene.
To conclude, visiting this hidden gem was a blast. It’s far from the masterpiece that Otmo’s previous Akira is, but there’s no way that it deserves as little attention as it’s received for so many years. It definitely loses it’s touch at some point during the run-time, becoming a little repetitive around two-thirds into it, but the ending brings it back around. All in all, I’d love to see this film get a proper remastering from someone, as the humour is really on point, and while the horror is put on the back-burner at times, it is well and truly a cult classic.